The Lives of Others

#66 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a top Stasi agent, not the kind whose flashy skills and pride draw attention to himself, but the kind who quietly and methodically does his job, never questions authority, and seems to actually believe in the principles he operates under – or at least has never given them enough thought to really object. Then again, it’s hard to tell; the very reticence which makes him an ideal snoop and a hard-to-read interrogator means that we can’t quite be sure what’s going on in his mind: is he a loyal soldier, or merely someone who knows his place? German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film, the 2006 winner for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others is about Wiesler’s slipping grasp on his own stoic rigidity, internal and consequentially external as well. The suggestive title conflates state-sanctioned snooping with sympathetic voyeurism, and indeed as Wiesler spies on a bourgeois artist couple, playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), his impassive surveillance gives way to emotional involvement – eventually one will have to give in to the other. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has astutely noted the similarity to Wim Wenders’ seminal Wall- era Wings of Desire, writing, “No less than Bruno Ganz’s empathetic seraphim, Wiesler longs to be human.” Indeed, after listening in on a robust lovemaking session, Wiesler orders himself a home visit from a busy (and buxom) prostitute; though perhaps physically satisfying, it doesn’t quite scratch the spiritual itch Wiesler has been developing. Perhaps more telling is an encounter on an elevator just prior. A little boy, bouncing a ball casually asks Wiesler if he’s “really Stasi”; asked if he knows what this even means, the boy inadvertently informs on his father’s bilious characterization of the secret police. “What is the name of your f-” Wiesler stops himself, and pauses: “…of your ball?” The little boy chuckles and runs off, not knowing how close he came to turning the old man in. And Wiesler probably wonders what possessed him to show mercy, a quality he may not even have realized was within his power until now.

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